By Steve Svetovich
Holy Cross veteran basketball coach Al Callejas informed his players of his lung cancer diagnosis recently and his team immediately responded.
Led by junior guard-forward Gabe Gonzales, the Crusaders defeated Carbondale Area, 52-42, on Monday, Jan. 24, after noticing their coach shaved his head before a routine practice the previous Saturday. Gabe led the scoring with 17 points. Kaeden Carr and Will Kittrel each added 11 points for the Crusaders.
When coach Callejas walked into practice Saturday, Jan. 22, he was wearing a cap to hide his shaved head. When he removed the cap, his fight against lung cancer hit the players hard.
The next day every member of the Holy Cross basketball team showed their support for Coach Callejas by shaving their heads.
When the team took the court against Carbondale Area, the intense and fiery coach was brought to tears as each player was announced one-by-one.
Callejas, 67, and his family learned of the diagnosis this past October and he informed the team in early January. He started radiation and chemotherapy in early January. The treatments will continue and cause him to lose his hair. He thus shaved his head, but vowed to continue coaching, because “you finish what you start.”
Gonzales has been one of the leaders of the team. He is fifth in Lackawanna League Division III in scoring, averaging 12.9 points per game. He is third in the league in free throw percentage at .778.
The Crusaders continued to up their game with a 52-45 upset win over Mid Valley, Thursday, Jan. 27. The loss dropped Mid Valley to 13-3. Holy Cross upped its record to 10-5, including 5-2 in the league. It was a balanced Holy Cross scoring attack with Gabe and Logan Tierney each scoring 14 points and Will Kittrell and Kaeden Carr each adding 12 points each.
Son of Melissa Gonzales, Gabe is a two-year member of the Holy Cross basketball team.
He talked about the entire team’s support for Coach Callejas. “He is showing us support when he keeps coming to practice and coaching us,” Gabe said. “He believes in finishing what you start. He is there for us, so we want to be there for him. We all got haircuts and shaved our heads because he had the confidence to take off his cap. We wanted to show him our support.
“He wants us to keep pushing like he does. We will fight right along with him. We want to put a big smile on his face by winning.
“We are pushing, working harder and more motivated than ever to win for coach Callejas. We are in this fight with him.”
Gabe, a reflective young man, talked about what it takes for him to excel in high school basketball.
“The number one thing is you need to have confidence in yourself. Don’t be fearful. If you conquer fear, you can do anything in life.”
The hard-nosed junior said he has learned a lot from Coach Callejas. “I learned all the fundamentals of basketball from him. He pushes that. But he also prepares us for life after basketball. That is his biggest lesson.”
The talented sharp-shooter said his mom is his biggest role model. “My mom raised me by herself. She is everything to me. She has the biggest impact in my life. She has worked so hard. I saw her work for 12 years in different salons before she opened one of her own recently. She co-owns Nook Salon on Potter Street in Dunmore. I am so proud of her.”
Gabe has a 3.3 academic average at Holy Cross. He would like to attend college locally and become a physical therapist. His favorite musical artist is Drake.
He said there is great improvement in the Holy Cross team since the beginning of the year. “The defense and chemistry of the team is so much better. I like how we get everyone involved now. Anyone is capable of taking the open shot. We are very team-oriented. We have confidence in everyone. The chemistry is great.
“Our goal is to keep improving as a team. We want to win the league and district titles and go as far as possible in the state playoffs
Well spoken and optimistic, Gabe said he is appreciative of his years so far at Holy Cross. “I came in my freshman year as a transfer from Dunmore. At first it was a culture shock coming from a public school, but I soon made the transition and fit in. It’s been great. The faculty, staff and my teammates are the best. I have made a lot of great friends here.”